At this year's Comic-Con International, "Arrow" star Stephen Amell was flying high. After two seasons of saving Starling City on The CW's superhero drama, the actor went about the work of launching DC Entertainment's massive slate of 2014 TV debuts. Throughout the weekend and into DC TV's big Hall H presentation, the actor was the face of the company's television division, and he felt quite comfortable in the part.
"It's really rewarding," Amell told CBR. "The WB Party that we had last night is at the same place it is every year, at the Hard Rock. And to be there last night, with five DC properties premiering in the fall and remembering being there in 2011 when I'd go up to people going 'Nice bag' when I was on the bag... it's extremely rewarding. I think that we, as a show -- as a cast and a crew and a creative team -- we can take a lot of credit for the fact that there are five DC television properties now. I'm willing to take ownership of that. We worked hard for it, and I think if we hadn't had the success that we've had so far, that wouldn't be the case."
Of course, the show that started it all has plenty of new ideas in its quiver as "Arrow" enters its third season. Amell joined fellow actors John Barrowman ("Malcolm Merlyn"), David Ramsey ("John Diggle") and Colton Haynes ("Roy Harper") as well as writer and executive producer Andrew Kreisberg for a series of round table discussions with the press to talk about how the introduction of DC mainstays like Ray "The Atom" Palmer (played by Brandon Routh) and serious villain Ra's Al Ghul will shape a season that sees the entire "Arrow" cast asking who they really are.
"We always look at these things as movies," Kreisberg said of the new season. "We had the first movie, and the sequel in Season 2 was a little darker and deeper. With Season 3 -- the third movie in a trilogy tends to go bigger with a few more characters added and a lot more humor. Those are the big things we're focusing on this year. Obviously, there will be the overarching emotional arc and the big bad and the villains of the week, but the changes we've made to the show, like changing the flashbacks and adding Brandon [Routh], make the show feel like a continuation of what's come before. But it's hopefully also going to feel like something new."
With League of Assassins leader Ra's Al Ghul playing this year's big bad, the classic Batman villain (teased in "Arrow" when his daughter Nyssa appeared last season) will help shape where Oliver Queen goes as a character. "We wanted to do something that we hadn't done before," Kreisberg said. "With Malcolm, it was a very specific villain who had a very specific agenda. That was designed where they didn't even necessarily know they were up against each other until the very end. In Season 2, Slade's plan was all about revenge. It was personal. It was something he blamed Oliver for.
"For Season 3, we wanted a new challenge for Oliver. [Ra's] really speaks to the emotional theme of the season, which is, 'Can I be both the Arrow and Oliver Queen at the same time?' The villain says to Oliver, 'The reason you're not able to fully be the Arrow and do the things you should be doing is because you're still holding on to Oliver Queen. I've left my identity behind to full commit to my cause. If you did that, you could rise as high as I am.' Knowing that was emotionally what we wanted to do, that was how we landed on [Ra's]."
"The big heavy is someone who will bring a lot of darkness -- even more so than Barrowman's Merlyn or Manu's Slade," Ramsey added. "I think darkness is part of the overall tone of the show. We've talked about some more humor coming in, in terms of what Oliver does. He'll start matching that more into the Green Arrow of the comics who's more humorous and quirky. But I don't think it changes the way the show is dark and brooding -- which is a great contrast to 'Flash' which has a completely different feel."
Speaking of "The Flash," The CW's spinoff drama will not merely run alongside "Arrow" but will continue to work with its sister show to expand the DCU on TV -- especially with the two-hour event that comprises the eighth episode of each show. "That's always fun," Ramsey said of the impending crossover. "I always loved the idea of crossing over shows from back when I was young. It's exciting. I'm curious though -- and I'm not even sure the writers have this all worked out yet -- because our show is so rooted in reality and theirs is so supernatural, how it'll all mesh if we do it too much. [The fear is] that all Arrow will have to do is call the Flash. 'What problems are you having this week with whoever? Just call up Barry.' I don't know if we'll do it too much, but it'll happen a couple of times this season."
While fans wait for that specific event, they'll have plenty of other DC guest stars to fulfill their needs -- primarily Ray Palmer as played by former Superman Brandon Routh. The super scientist character may not jump directly into the shoes of his size-shrinking alter ego, but he will bring some new sci-fi elements to "Arrow" according to Kreisberg. "Last season, with the Mirakuru and obviously with 'The Flash,' it's given us a little bit more license to have some less grounded stuff on 'Arrow.' That being said, Ray is actually coming in with a very grounded story," the producer explained. "Like a lot of the characters we see on the show, him actually putting on a costume and doing whatever it is that they do in the comics might be a long time coming. Right now, we're a lot more focused on Ray Palmer -- who he is and whether he's good or bad. The backstory will actually tie into things you've already seen that you might not have realized, and it does feel very real and very grounded. The best thing that Brandon is bringing on is humor. He has this old-style movie star quality about him, like Jimmy Stewart or Carey Grant, and it reminds us of an old 1930s movie where if Stephen is Clark Gable, Brandon is Jimmy Stewart, and Felicity is right in the middle between them. He adds so much to the show, it's amazing.
"We also have Devon Aoki playing Katana, a fun comic book character who originally appeared with 'Batman & The Outsiders,'" Kreisberg added. "We're very proud of our ass-kicking female characters, so to have another one is great. And we're really excited to add some swordplay this year. Her husband Maseo, as played by Karl Yune, becomes Oliver's companion in the flashback story."
The flashback sequences that take up a part of every "Arrow" episode will be vastly different this year, as last season's finale twist showed the Oliver of the past escaping his island prison to be recruited by Amanda Waller for a mission in Hong Kong. "The thing about the flashbacks is that we're not necessarily flashing back to the island, but we're flashing back to the five years between the crash of the Queen's Gambit and Oliver's return from the island," Kreisberg said. "There were hints all along the way that he hadn't been on the island the whole time. When we made the pilot, there were two ideas that Marc [Guggenheim], Greg [Berlanti] and I had from the very beginning. One was that Sarah was still alive and that she would be the Canary when we saw her next. And the other one was that at the end of Season 2, Oliver would wake up not on the island. It's amazing to now be here in Season 3 and have gotten to those changes. But as always, the flashback story will be the continuing evolution of Oliver becoming the person we saw in the pilot. For the first two years, even though he gained some of the skills we saw when he returned to Starling, he was very much still the young Oliver. This season, we're going to see him take a big step into darkness and change as the things he's up against in the flashbacks really challenge his morality and humanity. You'll understand a lot more of what we saw in the pilot."
Meanwhile, in the present, the early episodes of the season will see some conflict arise between Oliver and Diggle -- a development teased by a fight scene between the two in the show's Comic-Con sizzle reel. "You find us in a very good spot. It's all systems go," Amell said of where we pick up with Team Arrow after last year's finale. "But as you know, when things are good on the show it, means they're going to get really bad, really fast. It's an interesting thing for Oliver, because the dynamic has changed because Diggle has a kid -- or is about to have a kid. In the first episode, Oliver sees a version of himself that he doesn't like -- literally -- and that forces him to change his opinion on what he's willing to risk."
"You can expect Diggle with a Bjorn and a glock. It's Daddy Diggle," Ramsey joked, noting more seriously that, "He will have a child, and that will cause some tension on the team -- not so much with Diggle himself. He knows his purpose, and he doesn't see why a personal life should hinder that. But Oliver may have some issues with it as early as the first episode."
Expect Dig to have his own story this season, as he continues to have tensions with his baby mama Lyla Michaels. "The relationship with Lyla is a very adult relationship," Ramsey said. "They have a long history, back in the military. You'll see some of that at the beginning, but then we'll move forward as she's now the leader of A.R.G.U.S. We'll see how Diggle gets more involved with A.R.G.U.S. and the return of the Suicide Squad. You're going to see a lot more of Diggle's personal time this season. You'll see his story develop.
"It was almost like the first season was going to be the Arrow/Diggle story," the actor added of his own character's developing role in the show. "That was a very clear relationship, and then they started to peel back and look at other characters. In the second season, the Arrow cave got even more crowded. So it's different in terms of the tentacles -- there are more tentacles in terms of the storytelling. But in terms of Diggle, he's probably one of the most solid characters on the show. He's very clear about what he wants and who he is. He's the older stalwart. He's very centered, and I don't think he's going to go away from that. I think where he evolves is where he goes with his story -- his relationship with his family and the Suicide Squad and Deadshot. H.I.V.E.! There's his investigation of that group that put out the order to kill his brother. I think those layers will get peeled back in terms of challenging his very clear ideas of who he is as a person."
Speaking of the Suicide Squad, asked whether Season 3 would allow for a full appearance of team member Harley Quinn -- who was only teased in brief last year, Kreisberg was non-committal. "I don't know about that," the producer admitted. "There are very few things we've asked DC Comics for that we haven't gotten. That was something you asked for, and what you saw is a compromise that Geoff Johns and I came up with. To even get that much was a thrill for us. I know that they may have other plans for her, but it was certainly an Easter egg that thrilled us. But the Suicide Squad will definitely be back. Whether we see the 'deranged female killer' we saw before, we'll have to wait and see."
One villain that is returning for sure is Barrowman's Malcolm Merlyn, who has drawn his biological daughter Thea (played by Willa Holland) over to the dark side for the time being. The fan favorite actor said he'd been waiting for this opening up of his role since early in the show's run, and is hoping to play the villain with a sympathetic edge. "It's difficult, because when you're a nemesis -- as the show sees it, 'Good and Bad,' or as I see it, 'Good and Misunderstood' -- that's hard. I think the fans like Malcolm so much because I play him as someone who has a mission, but it's all going wrong for him. What happens in the future is going to be one of the most dysfunctional yet amazing relationships that you're going to come across. I think the fans are going to be shocked and thrilled at the same time with what's going to happen," Barrowman promised. "After Tommy died, it was then alluded to for a while until we found that Thea was Malcolm's daughter. Malcolm had two people at that time still in his life -- Moira and Thea. Although she's now gone, Malcolm loved Moira. He loved her because she would wind him up... Now, she's gone, and Thea is all that Malcolm has left. He lost Tommy because he could not control his emotions. He lost Moira because she gave herself up in an emotional sacrifice. Malcolm can control people with money, with violence and with destruction, but he can't control people emotionally. This is what he's got to learn how to do, and it all starts with Thea.
"But I do want to get together with Stephen," Barrowman admitted. "They're not going to put them together right away, because it's like a love relationship. Once Ross and Rachel in 'Friends' got together, people were like, 'They've done it, now. What's next?' We're going to be careful about that. Maybe it'll happen this season, or maybe later, but we do want to face off. There will be small stuff, I'm sure, we'll do together, and there will be some fights, I'm sure. But it'll be interesting to see how Oliver reacts to the Thea situation. Because I'm just going to stir it up."
Amell also expressed excitement at the possibility of mixing it up with Barrowman on screen. "I can't wait," he said. "I'm so excited, and without spoiling too much, John Barrowman and I have only done like two scenes together [in the show so far]. I was chained up for one, and one was us fighting, which doesn't really count. I'm a huge John Barrowman fan, and I want the real 'mano y mano' action showdown with John. I'm so fired up for that!
"In general, I think that Willa is incredibly talented, and it really excites me because for all intents and purposes, she's kind of been a bench player for the first couple of years," the star continued, shifting the topic back to Willa Holland's character, Thea. "This year, it's us saying, 'We know how much you're capable of. So here you go. Here's your episode.' I know that Diggle's had a couple episodes like that, but this year Willa is going to have an episode like that. And Emily [Bett Rickards as Felicity] is going to have an episode like that. That's the most exciting part for me -- aside from getting a couple of days off. I'm happy that everyone is getting their moment."
Amidst the Thea/Malcolm drama, Haynes' Roy Harper will also get his time to shine. "There is a scene coming up between [Thea and me] where Roy realizes he messed up," the actor said. "If there was one person who shouldn't have been lying to Thea, it's Roy, because they love each other. He's trying to busy himself right now by going on patrols with Team Arrow, but I think there's also an understanding between him and Thea that he really did want to go away with her. So we're going to see an interesting relationship between Roy and Malcolm because of that."
But it won't be all relationship drama for the "don't call me a sidekick" hero as Roy takes on the costumed role of Arsenal for the first time this year. "I tried a prototype of the costume which we were going to premier in the last episode of the second season, and it looked nothing like it looks now. It was still awesome, but this one is a whole new level of badass-ness," Haynes said. "We decided with the departure of a few of the characters that the storyline [last season] needed some breathing room and saved the costume for this year. But it's the coolest costume in the world. I lost a bunch of weight, but you can put a bunch of fake stuff in the costume and still look super buff!"
With a costume to match Oliver's, the relationship between the characters will start to resemble the "Green Arrow and Speedy" team of the comics more. "It's different but different in a good way," Haynes said. "Everyone was telling me last year that episode 20 -- 'Seeing Red' -- was going to be my big episode. I was hoping to get the script early so I could remember all my lines, and then I didn't have one line the whole episode! I was in every scene, but I didn't say anything. I ended up pulling a muscle from constantly making that angry face. I couldn't move my jaw. But now I don't have to do all that scowling because Roy has lightened up a bit. He has this real funny thing with Felicity. They've turned into this thing where it's like that scene in 'Bridesmaids' where they're all trying to one up each other. That's basically Emily and I this season. It's nice to see the lighter side, because if you go back to the cartoons and comics, Roy is a little quippy."
But is a dark turn ahead for Roy like in the comics, where he's been known to have an arm blown off? "I've asked about that myself, and I've asked about the drug addiction and the possibility of things like Cheshire," the actor teased. "They haven't ruled any of it out, but they have reminded me that it's very expensive to CGI someone's arm out, and I really don't want to cut mine off. So I don't think we'll see any of that very soon, but we will see a lot of people from Roy's past that are prominent and give the other characters a run for their money. We're going to see and hear about some of Roy's family this year."
Overall, the crew of "Arrow" expressed confidence that they've gotten their corner of the DCU lined up for another big year. "What's worked really well for us is asking early on, 'What does the villain want? What does the hero need to learn this season emotionally?'" Kreisberg said. "When you're in the weeds and trying to break an episode and can't figure it out, it helps so much to have that hook to latch back onto. Last season, any time we had trouble with an episode, we leaned back on the question of, 'Am I a hero or am I a villain?' That's how we realized Sarah could be going through the same things as Oliver. This year, it's identity. Every character is asking, 'Who am I?' or, 'Am I Thea Queen or Thea Merlyn?' Knowing that helps us along."
As for Amell, he's ready to take leadership not just of DC's TV slate but also of Oliver Queen -- wherever he may go. "Green Arrow's been around since 1941, and a lot of other people have had a much longer relationship with the character than I have. But for me, any representation there is of Green Arrow, I want to be involved with it," he said. "The whole Green Arrow universe is something we've taken ownership of, and that's important to me."
"Arrow" Season 3 debuts October 8 on The CW.